LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. -- Hundreds of letters and emails to the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge were clear: Don't kill the alligators.
Opponents of a proposed public alligator hunt that would begin next year outnumbered supporters 407 to 84, with messages reaching the western Palm Beach County refuge from around the world. A Web petition against the proposal generated 2,975 signatures.
"It is not necessary to turn a well known and popular wildlife REFUGE into a deathtrap at the request of a single user group," wrote Brian Call, a Fort Lauderdale nature photographer. A South African woman urged the refuge to reject "this despicable and wicked so-called sport." But Andrew F. Kay Jr., of Indian River County, asked the refuge to go ahead with the hunt and ignore the protests of "a small minority of well intentioned and ill-informed urbanites."
A Loxahatchee official said the refuge has made an initial decision but won't reveal it, pending approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional headquarters in Atlanta.
The refuge, which encompasses 221 square miles of Everglades marshes, cypress swamp and tree islands, has proposed issuing 11 permits next year that would allow each hunter to kill two alligators. Among the methods of catching them are snares, gigs, harpoons, spearguns and crossbows. A bang stick — a pole that discharges a bullet or shotgun shell upon making direct contact with the prey — would be used to kill the alligator.
Although the initial quota of 22 alligators would be modest, the refuge's management said the number would rise if all goes well, and both sides are treating the decision as a significant precedent.
"The word 'Refuge' should mean just that," wrote Holly Draluck of Boca Raton. "It should be a safe haven for wildlife. These animals get habituated to people and a hunt is nothing short of a slaughter. … You may as well change the name to the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National HUNT CLUB."
Among the proposal's supporters are the Florida Wildlife Federation, South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which wrote that 25 years of monitoring had shown that "alligator populations are highly resilient to harvest pressure."
Several hunters wrote that hunting was a wholesome, traditional family activity that would have no impact on a thriving alligator population that has lost its fear of people.
"It will promote a Florida tradition and control the population," wrote Blaine Dickenson, of Boca Raton. "The folks protesting don't seem to understand the issue with nuisance gators. I'm a Florida native and have been going to the Refuge for years. I went on my first duck hunt there. The gators have been aggressive and unafraid of humans there for a long time."
Laura Majercik, of West Palm Beach, wrote, "Personally, I hunt to be with my family," she wrote. "I hunt for food. I hunt for the leather products that will be made from my harvest. I hunt for the freedom it brings me when I am in the outdoors."
Despite the overwhelming opposition in the letters and emails, a public hearing in September yielded a different result. By a show of hands, about two thirds of the 100 or so people at the meeting supported the hunting proposal.
Letters in opposition to the hunt came from scientists including H. Bradley Shaffer, professor of biology at the University of California at Los Angeles; Kent Vliet, laboratory coordinator for the University of Florida Department of Biology; and Barry Downer, curator of herpetology at the Tulsa Zoo.
"People come to these refuges so they can see wildlife close up," Downer wrote. "If hunting is allowed, the animals become wary and they are no longer going to be visible for the visitors.''
The refuge constitutes the northernmost remnant of the Everglades and provides habitat for a vast range of wildlife, including endangered wood storks and Everglade kites. Several opponents of the plan said the wildlife should be left alone.
"An alligator may be an ugly creature who can harm humans but to seek it out in a REFUGE and torture it for recreation is cruel and unnecessary," wrote Anne L. Dubin, of Delray Beach. "If we are stewards of the land, then shouldn't we accept the right of other creatures to live there too? Who decided that only warm and fuzzy creatures should be allowed to live?"